In theaters.

OK, so I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted, but my personal perfect storm of familial, financial, and meteorological stressors (don’t ask) seems to have abated somewhat, so I decided to check out one of the many Academy Award–nominated movies I haven’t seen.

When I was young and foolish and in possession of far too much free time, I made a point of seeing at least four of the five nominees in each major Oscar category, but that’s not going to happen this year. Most of them simply don’t appeal to me. But Milk looked reasonably promising, and I’d become interested in its iconic subject after Sean and I visited San Francisco a year and half ago, so Milk it was.

Biopics are notoriously middlebrow, of course, but screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, director Gus Van Sant, and star Sean Penn manage to avoid many of the clichés and pitfalls of the genre. Most notably, they avoid turning Harvey Milk into a plaster saint. The portrait they create is beautifully messy and textured and vibrant. He’s not perfect, but you can feel why people loved him, why he meant so much to so many.

Penn’s performance is key, of course. I’m sure it would have been easy for him to become bogged down in mannerisms, and those are there, but they never become gimmicky. Penn portrays Milk from the inside out. He has changed not just externalities—the way he holds his hands, the way he laughs, the way he smiles—but intangibles, too. His charisma is different, his very air. He exudes a sense of joy I’ve never felt from Penn before, and rightfully so because it’s not Penn’s joy but Milk’s—the joy of a man who has, at long last, found a way to be himself, a way to accomplish something of which he can be proud.

Milk bounces around a bit chronologically, but for the most part, it follows its subject through his years as a community activist in San Francisco. Milk’s political awakening came relatively late in life—he moved to California in his forties, after years living a largely closeted life as a New York City office dweller—but he quickly became a leader in the Castro, which was undergoing a tumultuous transformation from an Irish-Catholic enclave to a haven for gay people.

The movie’s depiction of ground-level activism in the Castro is fascinating and inspiring, especially after the notorious demonization of “community organizing” in the past election. It’s almost disappointing when Milk at last reaches City Hall, as one of the city supervisors, but even then, even with a suit and an establishment-friendly hair cut, the man is far too interesting to become a bureaucratic drone. And all the while, he’s surrounded by delightfully diverse crew of fellow activists and staff and lovers past and present, portrayed by a universally strong cast, including Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Alison Pill, Diego Luna, and Joseph Cross. (I tried to pick one or two to single out for praise, but they’re all great, each with at least a moment or two that stands out in my memory.)

The trickiest part, though, goes to Josh Brolin, who plays Dan White, Milk’s fellow supervisor and eventual assassin. The historical White’s motives are complex and perhaps unknowable, but Brolin tackles that ambiguity head-on, creating a memorably discomfiting, uneasy portrait of a frustrated, unhappy man. The screenplay toys with the idea that White might have been closeted or at least confused about his own sexual identity, but I think the most persuasive scene takes a more subtle approach. White drunkenly greets Milk at Milk’s birthday part and, in a superficially friendly but genuinely aggressive tone, argues that Milk has it easy, as a politician, because he has a ready-made “cause.” That interpretation offends Milk, who bristles, pointing out that advocating for civil rights isn’t just a “cause” for those directly affected: gay people are fighting for their lives, their most fundamental rights as human beings. Penn’s delivery of those lines is simmering and tight—you can feel a lifetime’s rage and fear underneath the polite words—but Brolin’s White doesn’t get it. Confused and aggrieved, he keeps insisting, and you realize that regardless of White’s sexuality, he envies Milk his vocation, his sense of mission. The irony is that at White’s age, Milk, too, was adrift and unsure of himself but he eventually found the courage and imagination and support system to free himself from his prison. White never does.

Milk culimates with its hero’s death, what some would describe as his martyrdom, but the murder is too pointless and inexplicable to conform to a classic tragic structure. The timing is off, the villain too pathetic. And oddly, that awkward dramatic turn, resonant with the messiness and horror of real life, helps lift the movie above the average mawkish biopic. What’s more, it keeps the movie focused not on Milk’s death but on his life and the lives of those he touched, and that strikes me as fitting. Harvey Milk deserves to be remembered not as a deified corpse but as a passionate, dynamic, persuasive man.

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